Thresholds of Atrocity: Liberal Violence and the Politics of Moral Vision

Defended: January 4, 2017

All political communities set normative limits to the acceptable use of force. A threshold of atrocity indicates the point at which acceptable violence meets the boundaries of the unconscionable. In liberal democratic states such norms are ostensibly set higher. Hence, there is a theoretical threshold to the modern state’s ability to act in ways that violate norms it claims to uphold. Paradoxically, thresholds of atrocity are almost never breached and unconscionable violence occurs regularly. This study seeks to explain the persistence of atrocity by developing the a theory grounded in moral vision. Liberal democratic nation-states are able to commit atrocities because they obscure these acts literally and metaphorically. Disguising violence in liberal democratic nation-states is further facilitated by the bureaucratic dispersion of responsibility characteristic of liberal nationalism in particular, the conversion of liberal ideals into national myths, the mediating of moral information via a compliant news media system, and the adoption of technological means of violence that are inherently difficult to “see.” This raises an inescapable conclusion with radical normative implications: a great deal of the violence we presently tolerate as acceptable ought to instead be challenged as atrocious.

Dissertation Committee: Carol Gould, Rosalind Petchesky, Uday Mehta

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